Dan Feldman

Cavaliers hiding unimpressive defense behind record-setting playoff offense

2 Comments

So much attention has been paid to the Cavaliers’ Swiss-cheese defense – for good reason.

If the Cavs win the title, Cleveland’s defense in the regular season would the worst or second-worst (in the running with the 2000-01 Lakers) for an eventual NBA champion. Cleveland allowed 115.5 points per 100 possessions to a middling Pacers in the first round – the worst defensive rating in a four-game sweep since at least 1984, as far back as Basketball-Reference records go. The Cavaliers clamped down against the Raptors in the second round, but Toronto’s offense falls apart in the playoffs annually. Against the Celtics in the conference finals, Cleveland looked its worst defensively after Isaiah Thomas got hurt and Boston switched to an equalitarian style that more closely resembles the Warriors.

Yet, the Cavs are here, four wins from their second straight NBA title.

Maybe we should give their offense a little more credit. Its carrying a historic load.

The Cavaliers are scoring 123.2 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs – on pace to smash the record in the 16-team postseason format (enacted in 1984). The difference between Cleveland’s offensive rating and No. 2 (1987 Lakers, 120.3) is greater than the difference between No. 2 and No. 11.

In simplest terms, the Cavs offense is built around LeBron James. If single-covered, he scores. If double-teamed, he passes to usually-open, usually-good 3-point-shooting team. Mix in Kyrie Irving‘s isolations, Kevin Love‘s outside-inside game and Tristan Thompson‘s offensive rebounding, and it’s just too much for opponents to handle.

The Cavaliers have made 43% of their 3-pointers and 56% of their 2-pointers and generated 27 free-throw attempts per game this postseason.

Their playoff offensive rating is 14.4 points better than the regular-season league average. That scoring has propped up a playoff defense at the regular-season league average.

The 2004 Pistons (playoff offensive rating 4.0 points worse than the regular-season league average that year, playoff defensive rating 10.5 points better) are the only team to reach the NBA Finals in the 16-team format with a great offense-defense disparity. Detroit is also the only team on the leaderboard with a better defense than offense.

Here are NBA Finalists since 1984 with the greatest disparity between playoff offensive and defensive ratings (relative to regular-season league average that year) through the first three rounds. The worse side of the ball is on the on the left, better side of the ball on the right and the difference in the middle:

image

Cleveland rode a similar style to the title last year, but the split is even more pronounced this year.

Golden State also appears even more equipped to stop the Cavs. The Warriors had the second-best regular-season defense (up from fifth last year), and their defensive rating is tops in the playoffs.

Can the Cavaliers keep scoring at such a high rate? Can their defense flip the switch just enough in the Finals, as it did last year?

How the Cavs finish their season is still to be determined, but their path here sure was distinctive.

Stephen Curry ready to take back championship that got away

Leave a comment

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Sure, Stephen Curry heard the scrutiny. It was deafening. It was everywhere. Even the two-time reigning NBA MVP wasn’t immune.

Curry’s forgettable NBA Finals last year ended with Kyrie Irving hitting the deciding 3-pointer in his face and Curry unable to shake Kevin Love as Cleveland took Game 7 to complete a masterful comeback and steal a championship on Golden State’s home court.

A month later, Steph was stepping back again as the Warriors welcomed Kevin Durant to their star-studded roster. When the season began last fall, Curry unselfishly gave up some of his own scoring chances so Durant could seamlessly find his way, not making as many 3s – or half-court buzzer beaters for that matter – and lacking the same efficiency and flair.

Curry is fully healthy this postseason and ready to reclaim that championship that got away last June as the Finals begin with Thursday’s Game 1.

“I thought it was kind of ridiculous to be honest,” Curry said of the critics. “Ignore is probably not the word. I heard it, reacted to it as almost like, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone type of situation. Because I know what I was doing on the floor and what my job is every night on this team, so I could go to sleep at night pretty proud of the way I was playing.”

Irving winning that matchup against the MVP rallied the Cavs, fueled a comeback from a 3-1 deficit as Cleveland captured its first major team sports title in 52 years.

Now, all the focus of this Finals is on LeBron and KD. And that might be just the opening Curry needs to shine brightest again on the big stage after the struggles last year, when he shot just 40 percent in the Finals and had more turnovers (30) than assists (26).

Lately, Curry and Durant have engaged in intense shooting competitions to stay sharp and have a little fun at the same time as the Warriors wait once more. They’re the first team to begin a postseason 12-0, so it has made for plenty of rest and downtime – far different than a year ago when Golden State went seven games in the Western Conference finals to Durant’s former Oklahoma City Thunder.

It has made a big difference for Curry, who missed six playoff games in 2016 because of ankle and knee injuries and was never 100 percent after that.

“He’s pretty sharp,” said player development coach Bruce Fraser, who passes to Curry daily. “He’s been shooting it pretty well. I would rather have him like this than like he was going into the last Final. He’s competitive and he wants to win, so you can bet that he’s not happy about last year and he’s going to go after this one.”

Curry wants to take back the championship that got away, and help KD and so many other veterans without a title earn their ring.

He has scored 20 or more points in 10 straight playoff games and led the Warriors in scoring in eight of their 12 postseason contests. Twice he has dished out eight assists.

“It’s just been such better progression for Steph this postseason,” coach Steve Kerr said. “I mean last year, right from Game 1 against Houston he was injured and fighting an uphill battle. I thought he was amazing under the circumstances of his injury but to me he looks fresher, faster, stronger than he did a year ago.”

Curry made a point to do everything necessary for Durant to make a smooth transition incorporating into the offense, even if that meant his own numbers were down a year after his second MVP and another record 402 3-pointers as Golden State topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ wins record going 73-9.

He took two fewer shots per game, his scoring average dropped from a league-leading 30.1 to 25.3 and his 46.8 percent shooting was his worst since 2012-13. But he still hit 324 3s for the second most in NBA history to his 402 a year ago and paced himself so he is peaking now.

“That’s a part of maturing and getting older in this league is you’ve got to realize every year you’re a year older so you’ve got to tweak some things,” teammate David West said. “I thought he did a good job of that. He took some flak for it early from the outside noise but I just thought he was intent on making sure he was playing his best ball late. He’s put us in a great position.”

The 29-year-old Curry has remained his unflappable, playful, perfectionist self, yelling “finish strong!” to himself the other day as tried for a 10th straight made 3 from the baseline. He missed, letting out a loud “ahhhh!”

“I’m just playing aggressive, playing confident. Obviously shots are falling. I’m trying to do other things other than just scoring so I can help my team put us in the best situations to win,” Curry said. “That’s it, really. The moment is bright right now and you’ve kind of got to live up to it. This is what we live for as basketball players to be playing in these type of games that matter the most. We have four wins left, we have to do whatever we can to get them.”

 

Report: Kevin Durant willing to accept less than max contract next year

5 Comments

The Warriors will have seven free agents this summer who are in Golden State’s playoff rotation:

And then there’s Kevin Durant, who holds a $27,734,405 player option for next season.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant is willing to take less than the maximum contract extension he is eligible for this summer as a 10-year veteran if it helps the Warriors keep the core of their team intact, league sources told ESPN.

Durant’s projected max salary next season is more than $35 million. But the Warriors would need cap space to pay him more than $31,848,120 (120% of his salary this year, which could be offered through Non-Bird Rights, technically a form of Bird Rights). To get that cap space, they’d have to renounce Iguodala, Livingston and most of their low-paid free agents (where the cap lands would determine exactly how many).

Obviously, Curry isn’t going anywhere. But another product of his relatively low-paying contract extension is a relatively low free agent amount. Golden State can hold him at $18,168,539 until settling all its other business than replace that cap hold with a designated-veteran-player contract projected to be worth $205 million over five years.

Iguodala and Livingston are the big pivot points.

The Warriors have full Bird Rights on both, but the team loses those Bird Rights if the players are renounced to clear cap space for Durant. If Durant opts in (for $27,734,405) or opts out to accept the Non-Bird Exception (much more likely with a starting salary of $31,848,120 and the ability to add extra years), Golden State could re-sign Iguodala and Livingston to any salary up to the max.

Such an arrangement would come with risk for Durant and the Warriors.

If Durant takes a discount next season, he might not lock into a long-term contract with annual raises limited by a low starting salary. He could sign another 1+1 deal and re-sign with Early Bird Rights in 2018, when he’d be eligible for his full max starting salary (projected to be nearly $36 million) and larger raises (8% vs. 4% this year).

Though Durant has expressed nothing but satisfaction with his time in Golden State, every free agency presents an opportunity to leave. He also loses financial security on a short-term contract.

If Durant opts in or opts out to accept the Non-Bird Exception, the Warriors would also maintain Bird Rights for Zaza Pachulia (Non-Bird), Ian Clark (Early Bird), David West (Non-Bird) and JaVale McGee (Non-Bird). Unlike with Iguodala and Livingston, Golden State would still have financial constraints for its Early Bird and Non-Bird players. Their projected maxes for re-signing without cap space:

  • Clark: Projected $6.5 million (must be on contract for 2-4 years, not including option years)
  • Pachulia: $3,477,600
  • West: $2,794,382
  • McGee: $2,540,346

Is that enough to keep any? Pachulia and West have already taken discounts to join the Warriors. McGee has found a team that maximizes his value, and other teams might be skeptical of what he could do for them. Clark is a wild card.

But even such a strong possibility of keeping the core of a championship contender – maybe champion – is such a boon. It’s in Durant’s hands now.

Tristan Thompson once ate a dozen Tim Horton’s donuts in single day

6 Comments

Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson is Canadian.

He went to high school in New Jersey and Nevada and college at Texas, but Thompson is a Toronto native.

If you need proof of his nationality, his shooting coach, Dave Love, provided it.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Thompson sheepishly admitted to Love that he ate a dozen Tim Horton’s donuts in one day.

They sprinted through Pearson International Airport in Toronto, minutes before flying to Orlando, Florida, because Thompson craved a Tim Horton’s coffee and thought it would be exhilarating to risk missing the flight.

“It was a long run,” Love said. “He gave no thought to how this might look to the public.”

This is part of an absolutely fantastic feature on Thompson by Lowe. I suggest reading it in full.

Finals pick up where they left off with Cavaliers-Warriors III

Leave a comment

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — After a summer highlighted by Kevin Durant‘s decision to leave Oklahoma City for the star-laden Golden State Warriors, a six-month regular season and three rounds of playoffs, the NBA Finals are right back where they ended last June.

Not that anyone expected any different.

Take III of the NBA Finals trilogy between Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers gives Stephen Curry and Draymond Green a chance to avenge last year’s Warriors collapse and LeBron James the opportunity to add a fourth title in his chase of Michael Jordan’s six.

Perhaps most noteworthy, it gives Durant the chance at a first championship and validation for his decision to leave the Thunder and join the league’s latest super team

“I can’t go out there and do everything on my own or I can’t go out there and just let my teammates do all the work for me,” Durant said Wednesday, a day before the series opener. “I got to do my part and we all got to make it come together as a group.”

This matchup has seemed ordained since James walked off the court in Oakland last June, having delivered his native northeast Ohio its first major team championship since 1964.

James had won two titles as part of another “super team” in Miami but last year’s meant even more to his legacy.

“I’m not in the `prove people wrong, silence critics’ department no more,” James said. “I got a promotion when I got to the 30s. At the end of the day, I know the way I’m built. My only motivation is to be able to compete for a championship every single year.”

The Warriors have been right there the past two years, winning the franchise’s first title in 40 years in 2015 and then blowing a 3-1 lead last year to put a sour ending on a record-breaking 73-win season.

That series turned when Green was suspended for Game 5 and James and Kyrie Irving took over from there.

“Any time someone beats you, you’d love to play them,” Green said. “But at the end of the day winning a championship is winning a championship. You don’t care who you’ve got to take down, you just want to take whoever that is down.”

Here are some other things to watch in Part III:

FINALS REMATCH

While the Cavs and Warriors have played in the Finals the past two years, Durant and James met before that in different uniforms. James won his first title in 2012 with Miami in a five-game series over Durant and the Thunder. Durant played well, averaging 30.6 points and shooting 55 percent but James came out on top.

“I know I’ve grown as a player just through experience from the last five years, but if I don’t go out there and execute, none of that matters,” Durant said.

BROWN CONNECTION

James’ first trip to the Finals came 10 years ago when the Cavs were swept by San Antonio. His coach that year was Mike Brown, who has served as acting coach for the Warriors while Steve Kerr is out following complications from back surgery. Brown had two stints as coach in Cleveland, leading the team to the playoffs five straight times from 2006-10 before returning for a one-year stint in 2013-14 when the Cavs won 33 games.

“It feels a little surreal,” Brown said. “I’m sure come tip-off tomorrow, when I’m looking at those guys in that uniform, it will feel even more that way, but right now just kind of taking everything in stride.”

UNDERDOG CAVS

According to the odds makers in Las Vegas and the number crunchers at analytical sites, the Warriors are the clear favorites to win the series after sweeping their way through the playoffs with a record-setting margin of victory of 16.3 points per game. James has called Golden State a “juggernaut” but the Warriors aren’t buying all that talk.

“We’ve had a great season to this point, a great playoff run. And hopefully we keep it going, but we fully respect and are aware that this team that we’re playing, they’re the champions and we’re not,” Kerr said.

KLAY’S SHOT

One of the few things that hasn’t gone right for Golden State this postseason has been Klay Thompson‘s shooting. He has hit just 38 percent of his shots as his normally reliable jumper has failed him.

“I’ve had a week off,” Thompson said. “So I feel great. Can’t get caught up in your shot falling or not.”

Thompson has been stellar on the defensive end even when his shot has been off and will likely be counted on at times to slow down Irving, who scored 98 points in the final three games last year, including the series-clinching 3-pointer.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Warriors are the first team to win their first 12 games of the postseason, sweeping all three rounds so far. The Cavs haven’t been far behind, losing only in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final to Boston.

This series also features 11 players who have been named All-Stars in their careers, including seven this year. The only other time a Finals matchup featured 11 former All-Stars came in 1983 when Philadelphia swept the Los Angeles Lakers.